Looking Toward the Future to Survive the Present

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Man's Search For Meaning" by Viktor E. Frankl. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Can looking toward the future help you build psychological strength? How does the future help you get through hard times in the present?

Looking toward the future is something humans do all the time. But it can also be a tool of building strength to help you survive a difficult present.

Read more about how looking toward the future can help you build psychological resistance and survive trauma according to Viktor Frankl.

Looking Toward the Future: Goals and Ideals

The ability to conceive of future goals helped get many prisoners through their time in the concentration camps.

Nietzsche said, “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.” When we set goals for our future, we give ourselves things to work towards. In other words, we give ourselves the why. And if these goals have an important meaning for us, we are far more likely to see them through, because the importance motivates us to weather the hard stages to reach our goal.

  • Suicide was rampant in the concentration camps, as most prisoners felt they had nothing to live for. Frankl helped two suicidal men set future goals. One of the men had a son who was waiting for him in a foreign country; the second man was a scientist and had a series of books in progress that only he could finish. These future-oriented goals–things to do or people to see that required them to survive–dispelled the men’s ideas of suicide and helped motivate them.

In contrast, prisoners who lost faith in their own future had nothing to keep them going in extremely difficult circumstances. 

  • Some prisoners admitted that when they arrived at the camps, it felt like they’d already died and had no future. These prisoners would often get lost in retrospection, obsessing over the past. This prevented them from finding any opportunity in the present–as horrible as it was–to feel positive, thus making it harder to continue living.
  • Death rates rose significantly around Christmas 1944 and New Year’s 1945–many prisoners had lived with hope that they’d be home by the holidays, and lost that hope as they reached the holidays.

Looking toward the future can not only bring happiness, but can help you survive difficult situations by giving you hope.

Looking Toward the Future to Survive the Present

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Here's what you'll find in our full Man's Search For Meaning summary:

  • How Viktor Frankl survived four Nazi death camps
  • Frankl's life-changing advice for coping with suffering
  • Why focusing on what you enjoy isn't enough to make your life meaningful

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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